Music review: BBC Proms

by
06 September 2019

Richard Lawrence reviews concerts in the BBC Proms season

BBC/Tim Burt

THE themes of this year’s Henry Wood Proms, promoted as ever by the BBC, include “Space and the Moon Landings”, “Earth & the Environment”, and music by women composers. Complementing these are the usual birthday commemorations and celebrations, including centenaries of Queen Victoria (1819) and Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919), plus various composer anniversaries: Louis Andriessen (80), Peter Eötvös (75), and Sir James MacMillan (60).

The most significant birthday celebration is surely that of Sir Henry Wood, who was born in 1869. In his long conducting career he gave premières — at the Proms and elsewhere — of an astonishing range of pieces: works not only by Sibelius and Rachmaninov, but also by Mahler, Debussy, Stravinsky, and even Schoenberg, whose Five Orchestral Pieces received their first ever performance at the Proms in 1912.

The BBC has done Sir Henry proud by scheduling many of these “Novelties”, including the Schoenberg, on 23 July. The first one came in the second half of the opening concert (BBC4, 19 July), which consisted of Janácek’s Glagolitic Mass (UK première, 1930) in a stirring performance by BBC forces under Karina Canellakis.

 

THE first concert that I attended at the Royal Albert Hall was of another choral piece, but no Novelty: Haydn’s The Creation, sung in German on 29 July. The BBC Proms Youth Choir (chorus-master Simon Halsey) were superb, singing brightly, powerfully, and with enormous confidence. They certainly needed this last quality, as they got little help from the conductor, Omer Meir Wellber. He spent most of the evening with his head down, pounding away: first inaudibly at a harpsichord, then fussily at a fortepiano. In Part 3, there was a near-disaster with the orchestra, and Adam and Eve spoke rather than sang their recitative; at the end, the language switched from German to English. Sterling work from the BBC Philharmonic and the soloists, but it was not a good evening.

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Mozart’s Requiem (BBC4, 11 August) fared better. Nathalie Stutzmann favoured fast tempos, which the BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales coped with admirably; she also imposed exaggerated detached syllables (“et lux perpetua”; “cuncta stricte”), and her long pauses between the sections of the Dies Irae caused a loss of momentum. The chorus, singing from memory (chorus-master Adrian Partington) was exciting in “Quam olim Abrahae”. The soloists included a soprano, Fatma Said, who floated her phrases exquisitely.

On 14 August, Berlioz’s The Childhood of Christ, sung in French, fared better still. Neal Davies’s bass, an admirable complement to the dark scoring of Herod’s depressed soliloquy, lightened effectively when portraying the Ishmaelite patriarch who welcomes the Holy Family at Saïs. Julie Boulianne and Roderick Williams were urgent in their distress, and Allan Clayton was a mellifluous Narrator. The perfect intonation of the Britten Sinfonia Voices in the Epilogue was a joy, as was the balance with Genesis Sixteen in the gallery (Eamonn Dougan chorus-master of both).

Maxime Pascal, stepping in at short notice for Mark Elder, slightly overdid the unisons and silences that distance the modern audience from the ancient story, but the Hallé were on good form: a special bouquet for Amy Yule, Sarah Bennett, and Marie Leenhardt for their charming account of the Trio for flutes and harp. And I must single out Inga Maria Klaucke for her throaty bassoon obbligato in Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg, the third (No. 149) of four Bach cantatas performed later the same evening by Solomon’s Knot.

 

THERE have been orchestral concerts too, of course. On 10 August, the Philharmonia Orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen played Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony. A disturbance in the gallery caused a restart: the first horn, Diego Incertis Sánchez, quite unfazed, played his exposed solo just as perfectly the second time round. There was lovely singing tone from the violas in the slow movement. The concert opened with a straightforward account of Brahms’s St Anthony Variations, notable for the delicate statement of the tune. This work was followed by the Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen in Richard Strauss’s Four Songs, Op. 27. The last song, “Morgen”, was beautifully done, but it was the encore, “Dich, teure Halle” from Tannhäuser — straight from her performances at Bayreuth — that fired up the audience.

The concert on 13 August featured the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in a 60th-birthday tribute to the conductor of the evening, Martyn Brabbins. Pictured Within: Birthday Variations for M.C.B. was a BBC commission for 14 composers, each invited to write a variation to correspond with the equivalent position in Elgar’s Enigma. The composer of the new theme was, teasingly, Anon. The effect was bitty, but it was a nice gesture. Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music, dedicated to Wood (a Novelty of 1938), was ravishingly done by four soloists and the combined BBC Singers and ENO Chorus (chorus-master James Henshaw).

At the end, inevitably and appropriately, came the Enigma Variations: the theme slightly over-shaped, but a good build-up in “Nimrod”, and the optional organ part — it should be compulsory! — shining through in the Finale. The whole thing can be seen on BBC4 on 8 September.

 

THE Queen Victoria bicentenary was marked by a splendid concert on 16 August. The lesser pieces were a suite from Victoria and Merrie England, a ballet composed by Sullivan for the Diamond Jubilee; and five songs by Prince Albert, mellifluously sung by the tenor Alessandro Fisher. There were two works by Mendelssohn: the “Scottish” Symphony was nobly played by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Ádám Fischer; but the focus was on the First Piano Concerto, effortlessly dispatched by Stephen Hough (who later accompanied Fisher in the songs).

The piano was Queen Victoria’s own, an Érard built in 1856 which lives in Buckingham Palace. It’s gilded and decorated in a manner just — perhaps — short of vulgarity, but it sounded well, the tone veiled but clear. To hear Hough’s encore, Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat, Op. 9 No. 2, was to be transported to a 19th-century salon. You can catch up with the concert on the BBC iPlayer till mid-September.

 

THE annual performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony came on 19 August and, for the first time that I can remember, the soloists didn’t enter to annoying applause halfway through, but sat patiently in their places from the start. Bravo, BBC!

Sakari Oramo conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a beautifully judged performance of the first movement: the timpani were thunderous at the recapitulation, but it was the soft, low minatory notes on the trumpets which were telling. The faster sections of the third movement flowed nicely. Again, soloists and chorus sang from memory: the Finnish bass Mika Kares seized the attention with the directness of his opening phrase. The BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus-master Neil Ferris) sang heroically, the sopranos’ sustained top A at “der ganzen Welt” seeming as if it could go on for ever.

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla offered a curious programme on 22 August. It started with a Wood Novelty, Lamia (1919), by Dorothy Howell (1898-1982), and finished with the Third Symphony of Mieczyslaw Weinberg, the beginning of which recalled the plaintive woodwind melody in Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony; later, a bleak landscape evoked by the violins suggested the music of the composer’s friend, Shostakovich.

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It was preceded by a short extract from Higglety Pigglety Pop!, an opera by the late, much-missed Oliver Knussen. Before the interval came the Elgar Cello Concerto, played by the gifted winner of the 2016 BBC Young Musician competition, Sheku Kanneh-Mason. There were times when he produced the merest thread of tone: mesmerising, and I don’t think it was just the Albert Hall acoustic.

 

TWO more choral concerts to conclude this first report on the Proms. The first of the lunchtime concerts at the Cadogan Hall (22 July) was given by Voces8 in a programme that ranged from the Middle Ages to the present day. Vadam et circuibo civitatem by Jonathan Dove (b. 1959) gained in excitement at the homophonic “Adiuro vos, filiae Jerusalem”; Earthward, a BBC commission by Alexia Sloane (b. 2000) was engaging for its exploration of texture. The group produced rich tone for the end of Palestrina’s Magnificat primi toni and Gibbons’s O clap your hands, and wonderfully hushed singing for the encore, the Ave Maria from Rachmaninov’s Vespers (or All-Night Vigil).

After the kaleidoscopic brilliance of Charles Koechlin’s Les bandar-log and the secondhand Debussy and Stravinsky of Edgard Varèse’s Amériques came Belshazzar’s Feast (20 August). From the keening of the Israelites to the carousing of the Babylonians, and on to the triumphant conclusion, the London Symphony Chorus, Orfeó Català and Orfeó Català Youth Choir (chorus-masters Simon Halsey, Pablo Larraz, and Esteve Nabona) gave a magnificently full-throated account of Walton’s masterpiece. Gerald Finley was a thrilling soloist: the way in which he coloured the last word of “fingers of a man’s hand” was spine-chilling. And how good it was to hear the London Symphony Orchestra and Simon Rattle away from their home in the Barbican Hall!

 

Fiona Hook adds:

HANDEL’s Jephtha was given by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (SCO) with its Chorus, under Richard Egarr as Prom 55 (31 August). Handel’s last oratorio tells the story of the Israelite Jephtha, who, in return for victory over the oppressive Ammonites, vows to sacrifice the first creature he sees on his return. Unfortunately, this is his only child, Iphis.

In a moving and dramatic performance, the silver-voiced Trinidadian soprano Jeanine de Bique combined acting ability with riveting coloratura as the innocent maiden embracing her fate with devout joy. As her betrothed, Hamor, the countertenor Tim Mead sang with great pathos. The most impressive soloist, however, was the American Cody Quattlebaum, whose rich bass-baritone, perfect diction, and commanding presence made him the focus of the audience whenever he sang.

It is always pleasant to see modern ensembles embracing authentic performance practice. Egarr’s tempi were brisk without being over-fast, and his excellent continuo section even had a theorbo. The orchestra played with precision and delight, and the SCO chorus brought an edge to their numbers that not even the Albert Hall’s slightly reverberant acoustic could destroy.

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